This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.
By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*
Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?
Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.
Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.
As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).
While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).
Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?
Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”
Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).
For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).
The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).
What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?
Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).
In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).
While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).
The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”
The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”
This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).
At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).
Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?
Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).
This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).
The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.
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